It’s that time of the year again.
The Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when ghosts and spirits are believed to be let out of the Gates of Hell on the first day of the month.
Despite no getai performances and live auctions this year due to COVID-19, joss sticks can still be seen lined up along sidewalks and many worshippers are still burning prayer offerings.
It’s a typically busy period for Ban Kah Hiang Trading, which is known to be one of Singapore’s oldest joss paper shops.
This year unfortunately, seems to be a quieter-than-usual period for the business due to the pandemic.
A Family Business Of Over 70 Years
Ban Kah Hiang Trading was established in the 1950s, and was founded by the late Teo Chong Lim.
The business was later passed down to his son in the late 1980s, and has since been taken over by his grandson in 2016.
The current third-generation owner is 32-year-old Alex Teo, who is also a father of three.
In an interview with Vulcan Post, Alex shared that his grandfather had hailed from Fujian province, China and sailed down to Penang, Malaysia where he worked in a joss stick factory — that was where he first learnt the trade of making joss stick.
His grandfather then migrated further down and eventually settled down in Singapore, where he continued to work at several joss stick factories before he decided to open a factory of his own.
According to Alex, it was the first factory in Singapore to locally produce incense coil.
Due to increasing operating and manpower cost however, the joss stick factory eventually closed down in the mid-1980s.
Our operation still continued on through the 1990s from our two retail stores in Tiong Bahru Market and Prince Philip Avenue.
Today, our old retail store at Tiong Bahru Market is still there and we are headquartered and operating from 107 Jalan Bukit Merah, which is where I am based now.– Alex Teo, third-generation owner of Ban Kah Hiang Trading
Currently, Ban Kah Hiang Trading operates from two retail outlets and three warehouses.
It is now a supplier and wholesaler for joss paper and joss sticks, which they supply to various temples and other joss paper stores islandwide.
They have clinched several big-name clients, especially during the seventh month when many corporate companies order from them regularly every year.
These clients include big hotels, restaurant groups, MNCs and even government agencies.
A Millennial Running A Traditional Business
Alex took over the family business full-time in 2016, when he was only 28 years old.
There were quite a number of traditional joss paper shops which have been around in Singapore for many years (but they’ve) closed down because there was no successor of my generation to take over the business.
I wouldn’t want this to happen to my own family business and decided to take over after consulting my parents and spouse.– Alex Teo, third-generation owner of Ban Kah Hiang Trading
While family and friends didn’t expect him to take over such a traditional business, they were supportive of his decision.
Prior to running the business, the business management graduate from the University of Manchester worked as a medical claims assessor — for CPF Board for almost five years, and Prudential Assurance for the next 1.5 years.
He had zero experience in retail, so there was a steep learning curve for him.
“There are so many things to learn in this trade, and I am still learning from my parents at this stage. I actually have a ‘baby face’ and many people I met thought I am still 18 or 19, even though I am already 32!” he lamented.
“Many of my clients and customers don’t really take me seriously, or doubt whatever I said to them because they don’t think a boy at this age will be able to understand joss paper or Taoist tradition and practice.”
However, over the years, he has managed to convince them that he “knows [his] stuff”. Even if he really has no idea, he would turn to his parents and consult them.
Over the years, the confidence built up and he now has good relations with all his clients and customers.
Additionally, when Alex first took over from his dad, he realised that there were many things that were done manually such as issuing invoices and stock-taking.
“So my first task of taking over the business was to computerise everything. Now, all my invoices and stock counts are computerised and uploaded in the cloud so that I would be able to access these documents or work anywhere through my mobile or tablet.”
“It has definitely made my business processes more efficient and less time-consuming.”
Sales Have Fallen By 50%
According to Alex, his joss paper business have three main peak periods in a year — Chinese New Year, Qing Ming Festival and Hungry Ghost Festival.
Since they also supply goods to various temples and other stores throughout the year, business is brisk at other times of the year too.
Moreover, they also have walk-in customers who buy goods at their retail store for their ancestor’s anniversary prayers and various Taoist deities birthday throughout the year.
While kim zua is not exactly a seasonal business, it can be seen as a sunset industry.
As the society gets more modernised and westernised, the tradition of burning offerings and paper effigies will “fade off overtime”.
“However, the majority of our population and religion is still Chinese and Taoist/Buddhist respectively, so I think this tradition and practice should still be able to continue for several generations.”
Coupled with the threat of eroding traditions, his business has also been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sales and revenue have been constant throughout these years except for this year, when our business has dropped by 50 per cent due to COVID-19. Our business revenue has dropped by about half of last year.
(Many) temples and columbariums were closed during circuit breaker and a lot of restrictions were imposed, so (the number of) our retail customers have dropped quite a (fair) bit. Temples are also getting lesser goods from us as there are restrictions to the number of people in the temples.– Alex Teo, third-generation owner of Ban Kah Hiang Trading
Sharing his future business plans, Alex said that they plan to innovate and bring in new products and designs every year to attract returning customers.
Some unique paper offerings include the latest electronic gadgets, fast food meal sets and even durian.
“We will try to listen to customer needs and requirements and try to bring in new paper effigies every year.”
He added that they have been trying to improve their products every year to be more environmentally friendly. Currently, they are developing and bringing in “lesser smoke” and “smokeless” joss sticks.
“We have also developed a “smokeless” joss paper (and) we hope to see it mass produced and used in Singapore.”
Despite the innovations, one thing that will remain constant is their pricing.
My father advised me that our goods need to be reasonably priced and affordable. We cannot charge exorbitant prices, we cannot do it just for the money.
We are selling these goods in a way we are also accumulating good karma by helping others to give back to their ancestors and the deities.– Alex Teo, third-generation owner of Ban Kah Hiang Trading
Featured Image Credit: Alex Teo